The Media Column: Is the Boston Herald on its deathbed?

Alex Reimer
July 18, 2018 - 2:12 pm

Photo by Alex Reimer

In an ironic twist, the death knell for the Boston Herald might have arrived when it was purchased at a bankruptcy auction. Under usual circumstances, news of the sale probably would’ve garnered at least cautious optimism. Instead, it was a day of despair. The Grim Reaper now owns Boston’s only daily tabloid, with an apparent plan to squeeze it for every morsel of revenue left. 

At least, that’s how Alden Global Capital has appeared to run the other 96 dailies under its umbrella. In 2010, the Manhattan-based hedge fund bought out of bankruptcy Media NewsGroup Inc., which controlled regional staples such as the Denver Post, Salt Lake City Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press. 

In the ensuing years, it has acquired dozens of other newspapers, including the Lowell Sun and Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise. Alden Global Capital operates all of its papers under the subsidiary, Digital First Media.

The business model for Digital First seems to center around layoffs and cuts. The staff of the Denver Post openly rebelled against its vulture capitalist owners in April, publishing an op-ed urging its cynical corporate overlords to sell the paper to somebody who cares. “Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom,” the board wrote. “If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell the Post to owners who will.”

Within the last eight years, Alden has slashed the Post’s staff by nearly two-thirds. The paper once employed 250 full-time staffers. Now, after the latest round of cuts, the number stands at 70. 

Alden’s trail of destruction stretches far past Denver. Since buying the Bay Area papers, a cluster of 16 regional newspapers spread across California, the combined number of editorial employees at the company has dropped from 1,000 to roughly 150.

When Digital First officially acquired the Herald in March, only 175 of the paper’s estimated 240 employees were offered jobs. Those who were retained received an email within a two-week window. Former sports editor Sean Leahy, who’s now managing editor of The Athletic Boston, describes the experience as dehumanizing. 

“People are asking me a week before the closing, they’re going out on road trips and they don’t know if they’re going to have jobs (when they come back),” he told me on the phone.

Since then, six employees on the advertising and business side have been laid off. More are expected to come when Digital First moves the paper’s page design and advertising to its central officers in Colorado. 

“(The) layoffs were of people with decades of service to the paper,” a Herald source told me over email. “People who were given a handful of minutes notice and escorted out of the building like criminals.”

Two interview requests sent to Digital First’s Massachusetts and New York regional publisher, Kevin Corrado, weren’t returned. 

Consolidating page production and advertising are standard cost-cutting measures. But the mass exodus from the editorial staff has been astounding. Since the sale, at least 25 members of editorial –– ranging from reporters to columnists to editors –– have left, according to a Herald source.

On the sports side, star Patriots beat writer Jeff Howe, who’s now at The Athletic, has been the most notable loss. Red Sox beat guy Chad Jennings, reporter Adam Kurkjian, Leahy, and the two editors who worked under him have also left under their own volition. Columnist Ron Borges was quietly laid off after the “Nick from Boston” incident, and Bruins beat writer Steve Harris passed away. 

Only Leahy and Howe have been replaced. New sports editor Justin Pelletier, who came over from the Lewiston Sun-Journal, told me there are currently no plans to expand his staff past 11. 

The Herald, like nearly all newspapers, has lost considerable market share in recent years. Its daily circulation is down to 96,403 (the Globe, for comparison’s sake, says its subscription total stands at 245,572 for print readership and digital). 

Along with a dwindling print product, the Herald features an infuriating website that overtakes laptops and smart phones with massive pop-up adds. Once, or if, people get to the website, they’re greeted with sparsely populated home pages. Between Sunday night and Monday afternoon, for example, there was only one new article added to the sports section –– Chris Sale getting named All-Star Game starter. The other three featured stories were Jason Mastrodonato's Sunday Red Sox notebook, Steve Bulpett's Saturday column about Doc Rivers’ take on the Celtics, and Steve Buckley’s Sunday column about David Ortiz managing the Futures Game. 

“It’s always my belief that if you come to the website at 8 a.m., and then you come back at lunchtime, your experience should be different than what it was at 8 a.m.,” Pelletier told me. “That's a mindset we have to work towards. It's a culture change. After doing things for so long in a certain way, things need to change a little bit. That's kind of what we're looking to do in the long-term. You can't just do it overnight. And you can't come in and say, 'It shall be so,' and it will be so the next day. It doesn't work that way.”

Still, Pelletier says he feels the Herald digital experience is better than advertised. When asked to name one of the site’s strengths, he cites how it “divides things by topic.” 

From a content standpoint, Pelletier says he’s largely satisfied as well. “The Boston Herald website was just judged in the Associated Sports Editor's Digital Contest in 2017, was judged top 10 in its size category in the country. I'll be honest with you, I was a little bestowed by that,” he told me. “The reason is, sometimes we lose perspective. When other people outside of the media market look at something independently, and look at it and say, 'Maybe this is something different and new.’”

With a small staff, there are obvious challenges when it comes to populating both the website and filling out a newspaper. On the sports side of things, Pelletier appears to be putting his focus towards maintaining the print product. He didn't indicate plans to re-assign reporters towards more digitally focused positions. 

"It's no secret sports is one of the big drivers of traffic in print and digitally for the Herald," he said. "The sports department has always been the calling card for this organization. The other side of that, and what sometimes we forget, is that from a coverage standpoint, from a credibility standpoint –– not only to the consumer, but credibility to the organizations we cover –– that we're there and we're making an effort to cover them as often as possible. ... You're more likely to get better access or quicker access to certain things if you're consistently there and showing an interest in whatever it is you're covering. So to not send somebody to Spring Training, or not send somebody on the road with a team, is not only a detriment to the people that are consuming their news, but is also a detriment to your relationship with the teams you're covering. That's important to remember. The relationship between the Herald and Patriots or Herald and the Red Sox is just as important as the Herald's relationship with the fans."

For a newspaper that’s bleeding employees, even keeping the status quo promises to be challenging. Alden Capital’s history shows they’ll continue to shed reporters until they get down to the bare bones. Then, it’s time to pick at the carcass. 

“At The Athletic, I can focus on doing good work,” Leahy told me. “I don't get the feeling that's the mission at the Herald anymore. I think Digital First is about money, not journalism.”

———————

All-Star Game rating stays flat: FOX drew a 6.5 overnight rating for Tuesday’s All-Star Game, per Sports Business Journal’s Austin Karp. That’s the same number as last year, though extra-innings likely hurt this year’s final figure. 

The subplot to the game was MLB’s obvious effort to push its stars, with Joe Buck conducting awkward in-game interviews with mic’d up players on the field. It was so boring, Mike Trout and Buck started talking about the humidity in Anaheim at one point. (Trout is really into weather, which is the perfect hobby for maybe the most dull superstar in recent memory.) 

Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor was the star of the mic’d up series, even doing push ups on the field at one point. The seeming fake laughter from Buck and John Smoltz illustrates the silliness of the exercise.

Meet NBC Sports Boston’s Kayce Smith replacement: Last month, NBC Sports Boston hired Danielle Trotta to replace Kayce Smith on “Boston Sports Tonight.” Trotta, who previously covered NASCAR and the NFL for FOX, has never been in an opinion role before. I recently spoke with Trotta about her transition to Boston. The biggest takeaways are below: 

What makes a good sports opinion person?
"I think this is the first time I've really been part of the ‘embrace debate’ culture that our industry is currently living in. … I’m actually spreading my wings faster than I thought I would. I thought I would be the girl who tiptoed into the pool, and not do a cannonball into the deep end, but I've gotten comfortable pretty quickly, and I think it's just a product of being in the environment: listening to talk radio, being surrounded by some great co-hosts. I feel like I've been set up to succeed, so I think I've gotten a greater comfort level faster than I thought I would. But I've adapted more quickly than I initially thought. But so far, so good.”

What's been a 'cannonball moment' for you on the air, where you went, 'Wow, I didn't think I'd go there that quickly.' Does one come to mind?
"The Hanley Ramirez stuff. I was pretty disappointed in some of the coverage. I  just think, as journalists, it's our job to do the research and get it right. It's always rubbed me the wrong way when journalists fall into this clickbait mentality, and they'd rather be first instead of being right. I just go back to the fundamentals. I think a lot of people jumped to conclusions very quickly, and I think that can ruin people's lives and ruin their careers. I felt like some members of the media handled it in a reckless way.”

So do you feel comfortable criticizing other media members?
“I wouldn't say I feel comfortable criticizing anybody. That's not the kind of person I am. I'd like to be supportive, and you want to have a great working relationship with folks in the media that you have to interact with. I think my boss at NBC Sports Boston said it best when I came here, 'The media is like the fifth major sport here.' I'm learning very quickly what he meant by that. I think everyone is always critical of each other and always listening to what everyone else is saying and reading what everyone is writing. So I'm starting to understand that cycle, but it's not in my nature to be necessarily critical of anybody. But if I feel like somebody journalistically was being reckless with an athlete's reputation, like this (Hanley) situation, I'm not afraid to say that.”

On being a woman in an opinion role on sports TV:
“I covered Danica Patrick when she was in Indy Car and NASCAR. I remember during one of our sit-downs, she was like, 'I don't want to be identified as a female race car driver. I just want to be known as a race car driver.' She wasn't asking for preferential treatment, the sport didn't make exceptions for her based on her gender. She competed on a level playing field like the men, and somehow she was always put in this sub-category based on her gender. I kind of feel like in a male-dominated industry, it's very easy for us to fall into that trap, when our preparation is just as diligent. I don't ask for preferential treatment in the locker room or sideline. I can hold my own in the environment. So I hope more and more, you're right: I can see the landscape shifting, and I do see networks –– radio, TV and print –– affording women more opportunities.”

Bum-kissing gone wrong: MLB Insider Jon Heyman tweeted Tuesday that Brewers reliever Josh Hader is his new favorite All-Star. “I named him nicest, most unassuming all star and he gave me a lefty fist bump. From nearby Maryland, this is a real treat for him and his family. #crew,” Heyman said.

Then, a bunch of Hader’s old homophobic, racist and misogynist tweets were uncovered. He did it all when he was 17: dropping the n-word, writing about how he hates gay people, talking about how women should be in the kitchen and cleaning. 

When Heyman was confronted, he defended Hader. “Hader's tweets uncovered from his teen-aged years were deeply offensive,” he wrote. “But at least he stood at his locker and apologized and explained it (after being given the option not to talk tonight), and he seemed to understand what a bad mistake they were.”

Never meet your heroes, folks. 

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